How much would you pay for a Twitter client? Does £87.48 (or 2.13) sound like a reasonable amount – when almost all of them are free, or cost a couple of pounds?
But that's the price put on the Falcon Pro for Android, a Twitter client, after its developer Joaquim Vergès ran into Twitter's policy – introduced last August – of limiting the number of "tokens" (in effect, users of the app) available to new third-party clients to access the service to a maximum of 100,000. The app has been on sale since November.
The intention of raising the price isn't to make money from people; it's to actively discourage anyone from buying the app, while allowing those who already have to continue to use it and get updates.
Though the 100,000-token limit is a problem for any Twitter app, because it puts a cap on success, the problem has been worsened, according to Vergès, by piracy of his app via Google Play's store. That has meant that the app – which used to be priced at – was being "cracked", copied and shared or resold by others, but with each token activation still counting against Falcon Pro's total. In addition some of the tokens may have been used by people who did buy the original app, but then decided to get a refund within the 15-minute window that Google allows.
"As Twitter doesn't give any information or detail about the user tokens used, it's very hard to estimate exactly how many tokens are due to piracy or to inactive users," Vergès told the Guardian.
Falcon Pro is the second paid-for app to have publicly run into Twitter's 100,000 limit. In November Tweetro, a free app for Windows 8, hit the same limit, and pulled it from the Windows 8 Store and relaunched it as a paid app: "Had these restrictions not been imposed on us, we'd be more than happy to continue distributing the app freely as the exposure we've received from doing so has been amazing. Unfortunately, the circumstances have forced us to put a price tag on it to justify ongoing development. Of course, these restrictions also apply to Tweetro+ meaning we'll only ever be able to distribute it to a limited number of people," the developers wrote.
Vergès told the Guardian that his app had appeared on one pirating site within hours of a new version being released, and that there seemed to be another "community black market" where users uploaded pirated APKs – the core of the app – and share them.
Vergès says however that he's not worried by the piracy, even though it has been an issue for a number of paid app developers. "It's never been such a big issue for me until now, I believe that users that download a pirated version of my APK [app] probably wouldn't have bought it in the first place, either by choice or by obligation." Some countries still don't offer access to the paid version of the Google Play store, he points out.
"I write Android apps as a hobby," Vergès explains. "My day job provides enough that I don't have to worry about piracy that much. The real problem here is the limitation in tokens, which gets reached very quickly when it's not controlled. If I wasn't limited in users, piracy would not be so problematic. My real concern is having new buyers complain that they bought an unusable app."
Falcon Pro remain on "sale" at its hugely high price so that existing users will be able to get updates – while discouraging potential new "buyers".
Piracy in Google Play has been a concern to many big-name developers, but Vergès's experience is one of the first where it is thought to have driven an app into Twitter's tokens roadblock.
"I've learned recently that if you really want to protect your app, there's ways to prevent piracy by changing your business model (free app with in-app purchases seems to be the most efficient), or by providing critical information to enable your service via a private server. No protection is perfect, but it usually dissuades the common pirates who don't like to look at code," Vergès told the Guardian.
Twitter has told Vergès that it won't extend the 100,000 limit for his app – the same approach that it took with Tweetro – despite getting more than 6,000 signatures at an online petition.
Now Vergès is considering radical action: resetting the app's Twitter keys, so that every user has to log in afresh. "Every user would have to re-login into the app to secure their 'user token', while I'd enforce security to delay pirates from using it as long as possible," he explains. "With that reset, I'm starting fresh with a new set of 100,000 user tokens, and I'm hoping this way it will free up all the unused tokens that are still active."
He hopes that will allow him to keep selling the app – at the original price – for longer "and at least allow a few more new users to discover and enjoy the app, while I finish the latest features I want to implement to make the app complete."
He adds though that "I'm not entirely sure of what will happen next. I can only hope that the token cap won't be reached again in a matter of days. I really wish Twitter would give developers some insight to be able to monitor the consumption of user tokens."
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